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Lions Roar : January 2005
34 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 THE BATH, THE RIVER, THE WALL A half moon hangs in the sky at midday. For the first time the wind is pushing us from behind. We climb out of forest gloom and treachery onto a rocky ridge and make camp overlooking the crumbling terminus of an immense glacier. Later, Gary goes into the trees to bathe. I find him crouched behind two enormous logs. A stream trickles down a staircase of rock and feeds into a shadowy pool. Leaves drip onto him. His hair is wet. He stands in a wide plié, then shifts his weight to one knee. I take off my clothes and squat at water’s edge. Moss is our only washcloth. We are hidden and naked; we lower our bodies into cold leaf-broth. A soft rain comes down. In the morning we climb a vertical wall of rock on a rickety ladder made of cut tree limbs and cable. Facing the wall I meet a dull mirror of basalt. Who’s there? An impostor. The walls have fallen from around my body. Everything about my life seems fraudulent. Wind kicks me in the ass. Near the top the backpack shifts sideways. Hope I don’t fall. There are things I’d like to do before I die: live for a year with binocular vision, speak only animals’ languages, start sleep-walking again, and do away with all automobiles. I grab rung after rung and pull myself up. In Japan I met Yamabushi—ascetic mountain monks who climb ladders made of knives and are hung upside down by their heels in frigid waterfalls. Mountains invite us to humili- ate ourselves. They offer danger and difficulty and drive beau- ty to the bone. THE BUMBLEBEE Raindrops, sun, a single cloud wheeling between two condors. Why do we walk in circles? We take a side route up to interior peaks. It rains again and we make camp quickly in a narrow gorge beside a river. Water sounds push Gary into sleep and I listen to sila—how the mind-litter rolls with chaotic weather. We are made of weather and our thoughts stream from the braidwork of stillness and storms. For years, Nietzsche searched for what he called “true climate” for its exact geo- graphical location as it corresponds to the “inner climate” of the thinker. He might as well have gone searching for the ever- shifting North Pole. Rio Frances roars by. Upstream there’s a glacier tucked in a cirque and its edges are ragged. The trimline of lenga trees is clearly visible: leggy tree roots hang over the cliff carved away by ice as if amputations had just been performed. A collar of ice encircles the glacier’s top edge, not white, but eggshell blue. Twenty thousand years ago temperatures plum- meted and ice grew down from the top of the world. Glaciers sprouted and surged, covering ten million square miles—more than thirteen times what they cover now. In the southern Andes, ice sheets fingered their way between high peaks all the way south to the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. All along the circuit we’ve encountered glaciers, but world- wide they’re on the wane. As a result, the albedo effect—the ability of ice and snow to deflect heat back into space—is quickly diminishing as glaciers melt and less and less snow covers the ground each winter. Snow and ice are the world’s air conditioners. They are crucial to the health of the planet. Without winter’s white mantle, earth will become a heat sponge and only smoke from a volcano will shield us from incoming UV rays. As heat escalates, all our sources of fresh water—already in danger of being depleted—will disappear. Warmer temperatures are causing meltwater to stream into oceans, changing salinity; sea ice and permafrost are thawing, pulsing methane into the air; seawater is expanding, causing floods and intrusions; islands are disappearing; and vast human populations in places like Bangladesh are in grave dan- ger. The high mountain peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, who depend on meltwater from the snowpack for irrigation, are at risk of being lost. The Ice Age culture of the Greenland Inuit, who depend on ice for transportation and live on a sub- sistence diet of marine mammals, will disappear. And the early onset of spring and the late arrival of winter is creating ecosys- tem pandemonium in temperate climates everywhere. No place looks as pristine as the Arctic. But some of the deadliest contaminants have congregated there. Ironically, the Arctic and its ecosystem is most vulnerable to global warm- ing. Whereas sea ice between Ellesmere Island and Greenland was 14 to 24 inches thick in 1991, when I first went there, it is now only four. Thirteen years ago I traveled to the high Arctic with a seal biologist who has spent twenty years of fieldwork on the ice. Recently he said, “Climate is what we talk about now because both glacier ice and sea ice are going fast and whatever oscil- lation we impose on the computer models, the same linear signal shows up. That signal is the one made by industry and automobiles—human-caused pollution—and it’s ver y strong. This warming trend is a frightening thing. As the albe- do effect decreases, things will get warmer. More solar heat is absorbed and the increase in temperatures grows exponen- tially. Which means we lose more and more ice. “The history of climate is cyclic and fluctuating. But there has been no other time in the history of the world when green- house gases, airborne methane and mercury, desertification, and deforestation have been around. The anthropogenic signal is nonfluctuating. It just goes up and up in warmth. The ironic thing is that none of these ills of so-called ‘civilization’ origi- nated in the Arctic. The polar winds bring pollution from the entire northern hemisphere, including the U.S., Canada, Russia, China and Europe, to the north; precipitation rains the pollutants down; ice stores them; and when ‘break-up’ starts, we have toxic spring in the high latitudes.” I lie in a boulder pile looking upstream at the hanging glacier, which, if it crumbled, would take me out. Clouds slide over, banking up, one on top of the other as if trying to make the